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Yelling doesn’t work—5 tactics to try instead

When you start out in this journey of motherhood you never imagine that you could yell at your kids. I mean, they are your precious babies, so innocent and sweet.


Then your sweet baby grows to be a toddler then a preschooler and starts pushing limits and testing your patience. You soon realize that maybe you aren’t that perfectly patient parent you thought you were.

You find yourself arguing with a little person who sounds very mature, but in reality is quite immature in their brain development. This little person starts pushing buttons you didn’t even know you had.

Then you realize the truth: they installed the buttons. In other words, you and your child are probably similar in certain ways, either personality or temperament. These shared characteristics are part of what makes it easy for them to test your patience.

The good news is that we are the adults with the mature brains.

We can bring ourselves out of a bad moment or call upon our higher order brain to handle these stressful situations, if we can keep a few helpful hints in mind:

1) Remember they are little

This seems simple, but at times it’s harder than it sounds. We are around our kids all day. We know what their little toddler language means, we know what (most) every whine and cry is trying to signal. While this is great, it also means that sometimes we forget their smallness and immaturity.

Even as toddlers, our kids can do so much—climb, listen to stories, color, and play. In the course of a day, however, they have to make a lot of transitions and manage complex social interactions.

At some point, they just can't do it anymore, and they lose it. This is when it’s key to remember how little they really are and allow them to be little.

I have found that just keeping this in mind put all the tantrums and whining into perspective.

One of my favorite child development authors, Janet Lansbury, puts it this way, "During the toddler years, our most reasonable expectation is the unreasonable.  Expecting the madness makes it far easier to keep our cool."

2) Count

We’ve all heard the advice that as a parent we can count to ten to calm down. This may work, but I have found that using the counting trick with kids works well too.

It’s not about putting a limit on their emotions; that is not a helpful strategy. It’s about giving them a chance to modify their behavior.

For example, if your child is doing something that is against the rules and will not stop after repeated calls from you, you can start the counting. You could say something like, “I’m going to count to three, and if you do not stop climbing on the furniture, you will go into time-out” (or whatever you feel is the appropriate disciplinary tactic).

Although simple, this strategy is effective because it works with your child’s limited brain maturity.

It gives them time to process the situation. Sometimes we forget that little ones take longer to process information that we do. This gives them a few minutes to think about what they are doing before further action is taken. It also helps you as a parent, because you can remain calm while doing this, and avoid yelling.

3) Model emotional regulation

This, of course, sounds easier than it is. Intellectually we know that our kids learn from every word and action they see from us. However, in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to keep our cool.

Research has shown that children, whose parents overreact to their child’s tantrums, tend to increase in their negative behavior over time.

In other words, parents who do not overreact, but instead model good emotional regulation, really do help little ones learn that skill. It’s important to note that this study was among very young children (18-27 months), when tantrums are very common.

What this tells us is that even though toddlers are prone to tantrums at this age, with our guidance and emotional modeling, this behavior does not have to be the norm for long.

4) Understand why yelling doesn’t work

In the heat of the moment, yelling often emerges from our mouths like a firestorm, without us really considering its impact. Consider this, how do you feel when another adult yells at you? Sad? Frightened? Angry? Now put those emotions into the body of a toddler. Not a great experience, right?

Studies show that people tend to remember words spoken in a neutral tone better than those spoken in a sad tone.

We know from research—and life experience—that yelling is counterproductive. Psychologists have shown us that individuals, kids included, have a much harder time remembering things or functioning well cognitively when their brain is flooded by distressing emotions like anxiety or fear.

This is why when you yell a command at a child, they are unlikely to actually follow through on it. Just knowing that yelling is ineffective might be enough to give you pause before you let loose a verbal tirade.

5) Take time to reconnect

Just like adults, kids sometimes misbehave when they feel distant or disconnected from those who love them. When you are fighting with your spouse, do you feel ready and able to do your best at your job? Probably not, and kids are the same way.

Yelling does not help with feeling connected, but quality time does.

Once the tension has passed, it is often helpful to spend some one-on-one time with your child to mend the connection. Unlike adults, however, kids may not have the verbal or emotional maturity to say that they need time with you. They may act out instead. This is your cue to take a few minutes to calm the situation and do something that your child enjoys.

Play is the really the best form of reconnection with kids.

It does not have to be a big production—maybe just a few focused minutes playing a board game or Legos. If your child enjoys arts and crafts, then working on a project together might be just the thing to reconnect. Afterwards, you might find that you and your child are both a little less edgy.

With a little mindfulness and a few strategies, yelling does not have to become a permanent aspect of your parenting repertoire.

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When we consider all the skills our kids will need to succeed in the future, what comes to mind? Perhaps creativity, tech skills, or an excellent understanding of math might be at the top of many parents' lists. Social-emotional skills, like empathy, compassion, or the ability to understand another person's viewpoint may not be the ones you thought of right away, but deep down you know they matter.

We've all had those co-workers who didn't know how to listen to our ideas or friends who couldn't compromise with others. We know that in the work world and in our personal life, emotional skills are key to developing and maintaining healthy relationships.

If you are the parent of a toddler, you know that young children are inherently self-centered. It's not some faulty aspect of their character or a misstep of parenting skills. Young children simply do not have the brain maturity to consider another person's perspective or needs just yet—their brain physically is not ready to handle that kind of mental work.

However, child development research shows us that we can do a few things along the developmental path to help foster social-emotional skills in our kids. With a little help from us, our kids' brains can develop with meaningful connections that tune them into the feelings of others.

Here's how:

1. Treat others how you want your kids to treat others.

How we talk to our kids becomes their internal dialogue. We know from research that this goes for emotional skills as well. A recent study showed that when parents talk to their kids more about how other people might be feeling, the kids had better perspective-taking abilities—the ability to see a situation from another person's point of view.

This, of course, is the basis of many emotional skills, especially empathy. Just by talking about another person's feelings, kids begin to develop those crucial brain connections that help them develop empathy.

It's worth pointing out that very young children under ages 3-4 do not have the brain maturity to really understand another person's perspective. They lack a crucial skill that psychologists call Theory of Mind, meaning they can't understand the mind of another person.

However, our urgings and thoughtful phrasing to point out how another person might be feeling can only help them down this developmental path. Then, once their little brain matures, they will be in the habit of hearing and understanding the feelings of others.

2. Model positive emotional behavior in daily life.

It's probably not surprising to learn that how we react to our kids' feelings influences their emotional development. When your child gets upset, do you get angry or ruffled by their big emotions? We are all human, of course, so sometimes our kids' emotions are the exact triggers that fuel our big feelings, too. However, if we can remain the calm in the emotional storm for our kids, their development will benefit. Through modeling emotional regulation, over time our kids will learn how to self-regulate as well.

One study, in fact, showed that toddlers whose parents exhibited anger or over-reacted to tantrums were likely to have more tantrums and negative emotionality by the end of the study. However, the opposite dynamic can happen, too. Parents who model firm, but calm emotional regulation help their kids learn these skills as well.

3. Don’t be afraid to show your emotions.

Many times, we feel that one of our main jobs as a parent is to protect our children from the big, often overwhelming emotions of adults. For instance, we try not to break down crying or become red-faced with anger in front of our kids. It just feels too big for them to handle and perhaps not developmentally appropriate.

As they mature, however, older kids are able to handle a bit more discussion and expression of honest emotions. Have you noticed that kids usually pick up on the fact that you are upset even if you try to hide it? Kids are naturally curious and, many times, very sensitive to the emotional tenor at home. If they are developmentally ready, this can be a good time to have more discussions about emotions and how to handle them.

For example, my 9-year-old is playing a lot of baseball this summer and always wants me to pitch to him so he can practice batting. Now, I am not a very skilled player so my pitches often go off course or are too weak. He had gotten in the habit of correcting my pitching or (more likely) complaining about it every time we played.

After repeated experiences with this, I was not only annoyed but it also sort of hurt my feelings—so I finally told him how I felt. Guess what? His behavior at practice time changed dramatically! The mere fact of him realizing that his mom has feelings too really made him think about his words more carefully.

These types of interaction can become part of your "emotion coaching." It may sound silly but it can make a big impact for kids, especially as they grow older and are more able to really understand the emotional lesson. On some level, it's nice that our kids think we are superheroes, but it's also crucial that they understand that we are still human, with real feelings.

The magic of helping our kids develop empathy doesn't happen in well-planned lessons or elaborate activities. The real magic happens in the small, simple interactions and discussions we have with our kids each day.

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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Sometimes it can feel like you never get a minute to even finish a thought—let alone a to-do list. When your day is packed with caretaking, your own needs get pushed back. So when you finally get to lie down at the end of the day, all those thoughts are waiting for you. While we haven't figured out the secret to keeping you from over-analyzing every.single.thing. (sorry, mama!), we do believe you must carve out time for you. Because that rest is just as important—and you've certainly earned it.

XO,

#TeamMotherly

PS: We spoke to Jessica Alba and she gave us the lowdown on why she stopped breastfeeding, and Nordstrom is having their anniversary sale until August 5th. Here's everything we want!

My Instagram feed has been full of pictures of friends that their kids to the beach. I get it, I like the beach a lot. But the forest and the mountains are my real loves.

The way the damp leaves smell in the morning. The peace of walking underneath a canopy of trees. The sound of firewood crackling at night. Sigh, heaven.

I also grew up camping with my family and have done some intense hiking, backpacking and search and rescue. So it's kind of in my blood—I wear my frostbite scars with honor.

So I couldn't wait to get my future kids out into nature (minus the frostbite). I had visions of us hiking to a stream, swimming and splashing all day, then cooking a big meal over a campfire as we sing songs and laugh.

Then, I actually became a parent. Of three kids, actually, all of whom are still very young… and a dog… and a husband who doesn't really like camping.

Despite the realization that it wouldn't be exactly as I planned, this summer we finally decided to take our first camping trip as a family.

Here is what I learned:

1. Set the bar low

I had to remind myself over and over again that this trip would not live up to my expectations. I know this sounds like a bummer way to start a trip, but it really helped. I have the tendency to over-plan and get really (really) excited about things. This is not a bad quality, but it can lend itself to disappointment when things don't go as hoped. I didn't want us to leave the trip feeling like it was a failure in any way.

This trip was a success, and a big moment for our family, no matter how it turned out.

Instead of forcing activities or memories, I forced myself to just… be. Not expecting the trip to be magical opened us up to appreciate the unexpected moments of magic as they occurred naturally, without being forced.

This got harder, of course, when our car got stuck in the mud (true story), and we had to wait three hours for AAA to arrive. But when our kids talk about the camping trip now they still squeal with delight as they recount the story of the tow truck coming. You're welcome (I guess)?

2. We made it really easy

I put my camping ego aside, and we took a lot of shortcuts on this first trip. We didn't stay in a tent but rented a barebones cabin instead. For dinner, we ordered a pizza. And we let the kids play on our phones for a little bit in the evening.

Those things didn't make for a truly authentic experience, but goodness, they really helped. I have started to realize that there is no shame in making things easy, especially when you have little kids. And they didn't know any different. As far as they are concerned, we hiked the Appalachian Trail and gathered all our own food from the earth.

This was a lazy camping trip, for sure—and that was exactly what we needed.

3. I over-prepped for safety so I could calm down

I have hiked and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire in February—this was not that. At any given moment on our trip, an ambulance could have easily reached us, and we were only a few minutes away from a hospital at any point. But it made me feel much better to know that we were safe and ready for anything that should happen.

We bought a first aid kit, a survival kit, too many flashlights and bottled water. I was really big on everyone wearing good footwear and teaching them how to walk carefully on uneven terrain.

We also used the opportunity to teach about other areas, like water safety. Rita Goldberg of the British Swim School recommends "[teaching kids] to avoid water hazards and to not approach a fountain, river, pool or lake without an adult's supervision and permission."

We also incorporated their "Water Watcher" program, which assigns a "badge of responsibility" to one adult at all times, who maintains a constant watch over the kids while they are near water.

These easy steps, that we decided on ahead of time, made me feel much more relaxed, and therefore better able to enjoy our time.

This trip took some emotional adjustments on my part. It wasn't glamorous, or particularly exciting. But that was exactly what it needed to be. Emily Glover wrote that "by getting away from the distractions of home and focusing on each other...we're reminded of what really matters."

We found that in the woods—together.

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